Prep for costly fight as Berman, Sherman keep gloves on

The Howard Berman-Brad Sherman story is loaded with angles — Jewish, Latino and, what may be most important, financial. 

The Jewish angle is potentially divisive to the Jewish community. Reapportionment has placed these two top Jewish congressmen in the same San Fernando Valley district. Now they are preparing to fight each other for political survival. Berman, once chairman and now ranking Democratic member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is one of Israel’s most influential American supporters. Sherman, too, is a staunch Israel supporter but without Berman’s years in Congress or clout.

The Latino angle reflects Los Angeles’ ethnic change. The citizens commission that drew California’s new congressional and legislative districts created a district in the Valley where Latinos make up a majority of the voters. In the old districts, drawn under the strong influence of incumbents wanting to protect their seats, Latinos were split between the Berman and Sherman districts. This made it impossible for Latinos to win a Valley congressional seat, despite their growing numbers.

The predominantly Latino district created by the commission ripped out East Valley portions from Berman’s district and threw him and Sherman into the same redrawn district. That one generally covers the West Valley, including areas that are strongly Jewish.

Finally, there’s the money. The Berman-Sherman race will be close; in fact, neither may win the primary, which would set up a November runoff. Both are successful political fundraisers, and it could be the most expensive congressional race in the country. “The Berman-Sherman fight is too bad,” said Bruce Cain, a UC Berkeley political science professor and director of the university’s Washington Center. “It could go two rounds at huge expense when the Democrats could be using the money on other races.”

I talked to Berman and Sherman after the commission gave final approval to the new district lines earlier in the month. Berman, elected to Congress in 1982, rose to prominence on the House Foreign Affairs Committee as well as being active on other issues. Sherman was elected in 1996 after serving on the State Board of Equalization and is known as an intrepid grass-roots campaigner.

As we talked, I got the clear impression they intend to run against each other, no matter how many Jewish community leaders beg them to avoid a fight. Such a fight could only be avoided if one or the other made the suicidal choice of moving to another nearby district, which neither would have much of a chance of winning.

Sherman noted there are tentative plans to have a statewide referendum on the citizen commission’s congressional, Senate and Assembly reapportionment plans, or to ask the courts to overturn them, as was done in 2001. But the courts intervened that year only when the legislature and governor couldn’t agree on a plan. In this case, the commission was created by a vote of the people and mandated the new district in response to the voters’ wishes. It would be tough for a court to go against that.

Sherman thinks he can beat Berman. “I will run and am confident of winning,” he said. “I don’t want to be overconfident. Howard Berman has been in Congress a long time, is intelligent and has a lot of friends.”

He said, “This is not the district I would have drawn. Don’t portray me as smiling when I look at these maps.” But, “The silver lining is that they created a seat with 60 percent of what I now represent, and 30 percent of what I used to represent (in a previous redrawing of district lines). Ninety percent of the district is familiar with me.”

In the Jewish community, perhaps Sherman’s biggest obstacle is the network of donors that support Berman because of his advocacy for Israel in Congress and his long years as a leader on Jewish issues.

“My record is 100 percent support of Israel,” Sherman said. “A lot of very strong supporters (of Israel) will go with me, some will go with him. None of us serve in Congress forever, none of us is indispensible, least of all me. If I make it through this difficulty, I will be a strong advocate for Israel.”

Iasked Berman why it is important to friends of Israel that he be retained.

“If the past is prologue to the future … on matters that affect Israel, I have had a substantial public and private impact,” he said. “I had a lot of this before I became chairman (of foreign affairs). Then as chairman and now as the ranking Democrat, I have even more of an impact, not only in the house but dealing with foreign governments, dealing with the Senate, with the administration. On a daily basis, I have a role to play that would be hard to replicate … I am not just another vote. I am not just another voice. I have a unique leadership role.”

Neither Berman nor Sherman approves of the commission that placed them in the same district, something that has also happened to lawmakers in other areas of California. Neither does UC Berkeley’s Cain. “I do not share the bloodlust of some in the media and the public about the number of incumbents who have been merged into one seat,” he told me.

As someone who suffers from bloodlust, I don’t agree with Cain. I have watched many times while incumbents were protected in safe districts during closed-door negotiations. That is why Latinos were frozen out of a Valley congressional seat — an action, by the way, that did nothing to improve Jewish-Latino relations.

So, bring on the fight. It’s another painful lesson that democracy isn’t always pleasant or easy.

Bill Boyarsky is a columnist for The Jewish Journal, Truthdig and L.A. Observed, and the author of “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times” (Angel City Press).